Notes on Cities: Venezia III
INTERVIEW WITH JANE DA MOSTO, FEBRUARY 10th 2020, SAN POLO
Jane da Mosto is the co-founder and executive director of We Are Here Venice. Holding degrees in life sciences from the University of Oxford and London's Imperial College she continuously devises plans for direct action on how to contribute positively to the future of Venice as a living city.
JANE DA MOSTO: So for this architecture Biennale we are producing a similar booklet to the one we did last year, written jointly with the Cambridge researcher Carolyn Smith. For this year we will take it a bit further and will be producing another little booklet that looks at “agency”. So who’s city is it? What makes up Venice? It’s not nice that Venice – you will have noticed – is in a critical state right now. It’s this car-crash everybody’s apparently watching whilst thinking “what’s going to happen to us?”. It’s not because people seem to care that much about what is going to happen to us Venetians. It’s like, if we make it through to the next phase of life considering all the climate emergency and institutional failure then that bodes well for everywhere else. But if it all just implodes, then what should we think? So the agency booklet aims to untangle the question of who are the stakeholders, now and in the future, of Venice and profile the different categories. This project will also be linked to a number of initiatives that are going to be more or less official and that somehow connect the Biennale population to the city because this is a consistent number of visitors, thinkers... but what does that mean for Venice? What do visitors do when they are here and how does that impact Venice in the long run.
LARA BELLENGHI: You aim for the tourist to be an aware contributor to Venice as opposed to being its passive consumer??
JM: In good ways and in bad ways, yes. Because there are currently living and working spaces that are being kept closed except for when there is the Biennale because the Biennale is this big inflow of resources but the necessary point is: how can these resources be used to keep the city alive continuously, rather than seasonally? How can we turn the city into more than just a platform that you step on and step off again? It’s the ground underneath that we’re trying to consolidate so it becomes less a one-night stand and a more continuous relationship.Unless we learn to monitor and measure this, we cannot manage it.
LB: Phases of maintenance alternate with neglect, in other words? Raising awareness of how Venice is actually built could be an idea...
Jane: Oh, some people call this (the Grand Canal) the river! But the most drastic thing is that people don’t seem to think Venice has inhabitants.
LB: “What time does it close?”
JM: “What time does it close?”! “You mean there’s really schools here?” You know, things like that. It’s that the physical dimension of Venice as a city in the lagoon that is one difficulty. But it is just as urgent to insist that Venice is a living, as in, inhabited city. It’s probably the ultimate example of how a living city should be and yet they’re killing it.
LB: Peter Ackroyd writes –
JM: You’re the third person I’m seeing this week that’s on that book!
LB: It’s amazing. I’m not Venetian but what becomes apparent when spending a bit of time here, is that Venice is what it is because of its citizens, in their ever-existing, co-habitation with water, have had to rely on communal models. It is a city that has a different sense of time; things are slow and interwoven and there is no clear distinction between centuries. Reading Ackroyd’s portrait of Venice evokes this sense of union across time. Out of its consistent struggle to survive as a city floating on water, it became the most creative. This may in part be due to its composition of many small islands tied together by bridges: a city that fights to hold its perimeter together. One that, aptly, makes up the form of a fish.
JM: But it has a perimeter where the lagoon ends and the sea starts on one side and the mainland on the other. And now we’ve been forced to be very militant about distinguishing ourselves from everything else and to fight against this homogenization of Venice with the rest of the territory which is Mestre and Marghera.
But in Venice proper it is true that there is no real centre and thus no periphery. It’s inside the buildings that you get a sense of differentiation of the different ranks of life, where parts can be apartments, and others studios. It’s always been like that: it is what defines the social fabric of Venice. Everyone respects everybody else. There’s no class system. There’s different areas of that fabric but it’s not like in England where someone looks down on somebody else. It’s very... you’re defined by who you are and what you do but not in a higher or lower sense.
LB: It would be a dream if more cities would learn from this model. I happen to be from Vienna...
JM: Oh, Vienna has it from the top down what with all its balls and the coffee shops.
LB: It lives off that past. The trouble is that it’s what it can rely on for money; it’s the cliché that draws tourism nowadays. Isn’t it that once imperial or overly dominant cities – like Venice – make business of their glorious pasts to meet the general taste of the contemporary traveller? Such sense of nostalgia can have harmful consequences if we consider Brexit. But Venice’s plea for separation is different: it may be the only real solution to saving it. Now it’s practically the cash-cow of the surrounding territory and increasingly gets more harm in return.
It’s not like the littered streets of Venice are being cleaned by those living in Mestre. Venice Calls, the initiative that brought people together from around the city to help clean it after the disastrous high tide of November 12th, was a project that has its roots on the island, not the mainland.
JM: You must meet my son who is one of the founders of Venice Calls!
LB: The wider the range of ages in this interview series, the merrier! The whole point of them is to emphasize equality as a necessity born out of natural circumstance.
LB: Venice has always been a mirror. Whatever happens here tends to happen elsewhere. It’s probably because Venice – and other parts of Italy – are so loaded with cultural heritage and beauty that it became so easily corruptible. It’s why its decline came much faster, relatively speaking, after World War II and the onsets of mass tourism. It’s not like corruption is simply an Italian phenomenon. Now we’re all being inundated with masses of visitors if we learn how to market ourselves.
I have come to think of Venice as a mother of all cities, both in good and in bad times. The real tragedy is that as this model city, it is being maltreated by what acts like a rowdy group of adolescents unable to enter a balanced relationship with the place that has given them so much.
JM: There’s something in philosophy that speaks of how rights and obligations are counter-balanced. I’m not good at these intellectual things but, basically, Venice can only be open to everybody under certain conditions. You are welcome here but you have to come on Venice’s terms. You can’t just come here and poo in the alleyway, make loud noise. Venice is for everyone to relish as much to care for, people need to be correctly informed about where they are, it’s not like anywhere else.
But it’s the same with how you see people bringing up their kids. It is so sad that you see little children screaming their heads off, grabbing onto an iPad because their parents decide, after two hours of neglecting them, to take it away from them. Children become hooked on gadgets if there is no continuous relationship between the parents and their children.
LB: This on and off business hardly works, does it? This is the second interview I am having about Venice where the topic of parenthood comes into the picture. It upsets me to think that we are, apparently increasingly, brought up by parents that have too much else on their mind and that, therefore, we grow up as chance commands. And so I find it difficult to listen to not infrequent accusations as to my generation’s attention span. We are all being born into specific contexts and our current world is dominated by technology. It is not surprising if it becomes impossible to develop focus when from home we see communication reduced to screens.
LB: But then there’s always hope in the regeneration of generations. Venice Calls is a perfect example of innate goodness.
JM: Yes, you must talk to them. It is an initiative driven by pure and wonderful objectives but then there is so much rot that they have to get through. If Venice is now back on its feet after November 12th, then it’s because of their cleaning of the city. But it is more than just that physical act. The hope that they gave everybody in what was one of the most awful moments of the millennium, a world that seems to have imploded... that was just bleak, stark evidence that the city has been screwed for so long. The difference with this big flood to the one of 1966 is that back then everybody rolled up their sleeves and they said let’s get thinking and how do we save Venice. And they set up committees of scientists thinking of how to protect the lagoon, of people speaking of tide defenses... and they’ve had 50 years during which, evidently, they have completely messed it up. But completely.
LB: When you say “they”, you mean -?
JM: Institutions, politicians, together with economic interests, even people from the cultural sphere. For all these years, the Fenice, has been getting most of its money from the Consorzio Venezia Nuova while many people knew that what they (Cons. Ven. Nuova) were doing with the Mose wasn’t effectively going to give us any flood defenses. Now the Fenice is getting their money from the cruise terminal and the port authority. What does that tell you about the links between culture and civic life and morals even?!
So now – gasps – it’s very worrying to see whether we can untangle everything and find a route forward. We just had this referendum on the 1st of December and that was the big chance to make a step-change, a clean break, a fresh start where to do things right. And it didn’t happen. Maybe because of interference or because people don’t care so much, I don’t know. It could be the numbers. It looks like 30% of people voted but actually maybe that number is a lot higher because the total number of the electorate might be exaggerated. Because people buy homes in Venice and pretend it’s their residence when actually it’s rented out all the year on tourist rental platforms. And the current administration isn’t checking that. In fact, there’s an organization called OCIO – the Osservatorio Ocio – that has produced all this hard data. These are people, young researchers like you, that instead of spending their spare time dancing or eating or drinking, they actually stay up for nights on end, analyzing this data because they’re concerned about what is happening to Venice. And the administration can’t even be interested. You know, it’s all stuff they’re doing because they were looking for answers from what you would expect was a responsible administration to be working on.
LB: The international community is saving Venice rather than the local territory.
Jane: We’re back to the question of who’s Venice is it? The problem with Venice today is that Venetians aren’t in control. Lara: It will be interesting to see what the Biennale comes up with this year.
JM: “Living Together”, that’s the theme.
LB: Hopefully not just a catchy phrase. The Arsenale is so very much part of the city fabric, it is upsetting to see how unaware most visitors are of it as a pillar of the entire city and not just a grand exhibition venue. Any space that is once visited surely imprints itself on the mind of the beholder, so how can the Arsenale be taken for granted? The fact that we have a Biennale relies on Venice’s fundamental city fabric.
JM: - and what would the installations be if they weren’t shown in these extraordinary spaces? You just need to compare the Giardini and the Padiglione Centrale to the Arsenale...
LB: - to get a true sense of space and substance?
JM: Yes, it is majestic to be in those spaces. It is a big difference between the modern structures of the pavilions of the Giardini and the Arsenale whose bricks rest on wooden poles like the rest of the city.
LB: To a Venetian, in other words, of the two Biennale locations it is the Arsenale that is closer to home.
JM: During the Referendum campaigning time, I got involved in a public discussion with someone who had been one of the city officials. And my talk was about us looking after a city like caring for one’s home. That’s what a city is: a collection of thousands of thousands of homes on whatever scale and the quality of life of a city depends on the kind of caring and attention to the kinds of things that you care for in the home. And this person, instead, talked about a series of interactions between different realms of power as the important dynamics of the city.
LB: Sounds shortsighted for a place that demands maintenance like no other.
JM: For quite a long time, this person had a lot of influence in the city. With that mindset. I would love to see what happens to the city when it is run by someone who just thinks about how to provide a good quality of life for the inhabitants because that would obviously include the quality for the visitors. I don’t see why it has to be so polarized, tourism versus residents.
The word tourism should be eliminated from our vocabulary. You know, you could just call people visitors, you can call them temporary citizens but if they’re coming to Venice, surely they’re coming to experience it as a living city. Or are they only coming here to get something, like someone who goes to Primark, to buy a dress?
LB: “Contributors” would mark a nice shift. I was going to ask you what the resonance abroad tends to be after you have given talks on Venice.
JM: I try not to leave audiences with a sense of hopelessness... I don’t want to be the spreader of hopelessness. I want people to feel confident that there are solutions to problems and that it’s up to us to make change happen.
LB: I meant more specifically: how do people react when you have raised awareness? It seems that Venice is generally known but the dire circumstances it is exposed to and what can be done to aid it, appear to be mysteries. I think that once the information is out there, better are the chances for responsible reactions. Also, if one generally only sees Venice between St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge, it is evident that much information about the city – and so the experience of it – can only be minimal. So if you talk about Venice, you talk of all its different sestieri. Everyone here is, literally and figuratively speaking, in the same boat.
JM: There’s some economic law that what works for one isn’t necessarily applicable to everyone. So, it’s also a question of thresholds. This agency question is looking at how many visitors can fit in Venice. Not just in the physical sense: not the width of the alley-ways or the velocity of Biennale ticket printing machines. The balance of interactions with the city is what counts. The 2019 data has yet to be fully audited but we’re anticipating that in that year the number of tourist beds available exceeded the number of beds occupied by permanent residents. And is this not a tipping point?
LB: Just yesterday there was a conference on what to do with the former geometers near San Francesco della Vigna. New hotels is the plan...
JM: It’s just one of many!
LB: It seems that the decline in quality and rising prices passes unnoticed. It’s anything really: accommodation, food...
JM: That rubbish in the 2€ shop.
LB: But then this again shows how Venice is a model. In this case for how easy, apparently, it is to fool people. Very poor quality is being paid for without batting an eyelash.
JM: A lot of people have that kind of job. Selling rubbish, blasting out air-conditioning, selling plastic water bottles instead of offering tap water.
LB: You are describing a situation that increasingly overtakes the world, one that doesn’t aid our health at all.
What worries me most, perhaps, is the seemingly growing inability of drawing parallels: our own bodies are comparable to the fragile nature of Venice. (38:10). Hence I likened Venice to a mermaid, building on Tiziano Scarpa’s Venezia è un Pesce. The principles that apply to the anatomy of Venice are comparable to the anatomy of our body, what with pressure, salinity, porosity, saturation. Like humans, land- and city-scapes are just as exposed to nature’s systems. The inability to care for one’s environment is a mirror of the inability to take care of one’s self.
JM: Lots of people don’t know how to take care of themselves these days.
LB: Though the fact that something like Venice Calls has been created by young students, is symptomatic of the re-generational drive of civilizations. It’s moving that young people are trying to stop potentially irreversible damage induced by earlier generations by a self-protective mechanism that relies on community spirit. The most tragic component, if I am allowed to suggest this, is that Venice as a laboratory for the apocalypse is not allowed to state its own rules. If its tipping point is reached, then it is due to external forces from the mainland. November 12th has by some Venetians been termed almost apocalyptic. It is perhaps because of having been on the edge of a blade, that Venice is now rebelling more vehemently against the capitalist forces pressing on it. And the shape of this rebellion manifests in how problems are being approached pragmatically. For instance, some local Venetians that have the means, rent out their shop spaces to locals so that another cheap souvenir shop does not replace the carpenter.
How else do you suppose Venice can help itself, disregarding the difficulties it has with the mainland government?
JM: It’s the explanation of existential risks that gives all of us hope. Perhaps then the message will come through.
LB: The scope of the interviews I am currently conducting is precisely this. The vaster the range of job kinds that are included, the more like there will be a broader sense of proper understanding. In the end, it doesn’t take that much to understand. Ink on paper under water doesn’t promise a happy end – it’s science, not rocket science. Perhaps it’s also why Greta Thunberg finds so much acclaim. She’s stating facts, not opinions. It is a fact that Venice – and the planet, of course - demands maintenance. Nature won’t change its rules when someone pays more. The interviews I’m collecting this week converge on this point.
JM: Exactly. So whom else did you interview?
LB: I went from the Conservatory to Venetians that organize exhibitions off the Biennale season, to gastronomers, the Civic Museums and also Brusato Trasporti. I wanted to cover areas that define Venice beyond being a magnet for tourists, so libraries, restaurants off the beaten track, the Conservatory had to feature. Also, my favourite spot in Venice is actually from a gas station from where, on a clear day, one can see the Dolomites. It is there that once Titian’s studio, the Casa dei Birri, stood because he wanted to be able to look homewards from his working space. So, ironically perhaps, the magic of Venice can be experienced alongside the scent of petrol. That’s where the mountains frame the lagoon. And the skyline of the Madonna dell’Orto where Tintoretto is buried.
JM: Oh, so when you’re there at the petrol station and look out towards the bell tower of the Madonna dell’Orto, there’s a marina in between. There you will see a metal box that has a tide gage in it. This is one of the critical water-level monitoring points and when we found out a few years ago that it had stopped functioning, we found the funds to put that tide gage back. Because to the current administration taking care of tide levels doesn’t appear to be a priority. At least it wasn’t in 2017. Who knows now... I’m skeptical. I wrote a book on water levels and while researching that, we found out that there were issues with the monitoring network but water-level forecasting is obviously a vital function for the living in Venice. That’s done with real-time data drawn from the network of tide gages around Venice and the Lagoon and weather data from throughout Europe. So there are special models and algorithms that take the real time information and use it to predict how the weather is going to change and how that is going to affect water level. Because the flooding in Venice is not caused by the astronomical tide but by the wind directions and the amount of wind that pushes larger volume of water into the lagoon from the sea. In researching this, it became evident that this data is as important now as it is for the future. It is also used to help refine the models used to do the forecasting. We found out that certain tide gages were no longer functioning and the office didn’t have the budget to put them back on track. So thanks to the Biennale, through the contact we had to the Korean Pavilion in 2017, they said they wanted to give something back to Venice. Their curator felt very strongly the need to counterbalance for being here and for showcasing the art. So, because it was evident to the naked eye that things in Venice weren’t going so well, they put a box in the Pavilion and wrote on it “Save Venice” to collect money. At some point they got in touch with us to say that they had money available and asked what it could be spent on. It was an obvious decision for us to use it for the tide-gage. So this ongoing collaboration is visible from the petrol station you spoke of earlier.
LB: Thank you for zooming in on specifics of this kind. I hope it will inspire readers.
JM: The meticulous Korean Pavilion people collected the donors’ names and e-mail address. Of around 700 people, 500 did leave their details and we put their names on the box. So it will be nice if you put this down for someone who’s reading and could be one of these people. It’d be great if you were to take a picture there! (Cover Photo)
LB: These interviews will appear alongside polaroids – memorable souvenirs of mindful projects... but a reminder also of how varied the textures are that make up the fabric of this city.
JM: Oh yes, it’s not just at water levels that things happen. It’s everywhere, from the sky all the way to underwater. Really, everything. The existence of Venice depends on countless inter-relationships and effects.
LB: The alchemical city?
JM: That too!
Notes on Cities: Venezia, takes the form of an interview series as Lara Verena Bellenghi interviews residents of the floating city.